In a wide open format like Modern, there's variety of different decks one can play. Some of us enjoy seeing the opponent sweat when playing an aggro or combo deck, while others might prefer to draw the game out, and win with a combination of efficient answers and boring their foes to death.
Sure, you can try to exploit a hole in the metagame, or pick up the strongest deck at the moment, but oftentimes it's best to just stick to your guns and play what you're comfortable with. For me, that's tempo. I've gone out of my way and played probably subpar versions of already established decks, I picked up Aether Vials not to play Merfolk, but to play Eternal Command, and my EDH deck of choice is Flying Men tribal. Jordan Boisvert, best known for pioneering RUG Delver in Modern, describes this type of deck best:
“Consider a White Weenie deck that wins by going wide with undercosted 2/x's beefed up by Glorious Anthem. A Control player will happily watch the Weenie deck slam creatures every turn and shut him out of the game with an on-curve Wrath of God. If White Weenie splashes blue to address this weakness by way of, say, Spell Pierce, it becomes a Tempo Deck, sacrificing some speed for points against unfair decks.” – Jordan Boisvert, Pigeonholing Prevails: Modern Archetypes
It's easy to see why this style of deck is appealing. Playing Zoo might feel like you're bringing a pack of Wild Nacatls to a Griselbrand fight, but chipping away with a flying Wild Nacatl while holding up some Mana Leaks or a Spell Pierce makes games feel more interactive. Tempo decks boast a proactive gameplan backed up by some sort of disruptive element, and as a result are more robust against an open field than pure aggro.
However, this disruption doesn't come without a cost. When a tempo deck's spells line up correctly, it tends to steamroll anything in its path. But sometimes you draw a bunch of countermagic against the Aether Vial, Cavern of Souls deck, and other times you draw all creatures only for the opponent to grind you out with Liliana or Path, Snapcaster, Path.
As a general rule, in game one tempo tends to be weak to aggro decks that like to go wide like Zoo or Affinity, and decks that tote an abundance of removal like Jund. The sideboard is critical in these matchups, and you'll often see the tempo deck shift towards more of a lean midrange deck. By opting for a slightly more value oriented gameplan, it's easier to go over the top of aggro and keep pace with fair decks.
What if it were possible to transition towards this midrange backup plan before sideboarding? A new card from Shadows Over Innistrad has me interested in making that happen.
Traverse the Ulvenwald has already shown up in some fringe RUG shells to fetch up combo pieces and find silver bullets, but most have found the card isn't the better Green Sun's Zenith it might have seemed like during spoiler season.
I jokingly called Delirium “tarmokicker” when I saw Invasive Surgery leaked, and that couldn't be a more succinct way to show why Traverse has underwhelmed. While your typical Tarmo is a 4/5, that fourth type almost always comes from the opponent's graveyard.
I'm not convinced the fix is to load up your deck with Mishra's Baubles and Seal of Fires; the floor isn't as bad as you might think. Don't bother jumping through hoops; Traverse should be played a land light deck that so it can make use of both modes. In other words, it should be seen as a cantrip in the opening hand, and a souped-up Green Sun's Zenith late game. Tempo decks love cheating lands in favor of cantrips, often called the “Turbo Xerox” rule, because it allows them to draw more spells than the opponent over the course of the game.
Where I've Landed
My goal with deckbuilding was to end up with something in between the hyper lean RUG Delver style decks that performed well last summer, and the more midrange slanted Temur Traverse lists that players like Sam Black have been trying. The end result is a deck with a gameplan similar to that of Grixis Delver.
In the early game, Tempo Traverse wants to set up and commit a threat. Tempo Traverse should excel in the midgame where it aims to protect its beefy creatures with countermagic and chip away at the opponent. Towards the late game, Traverse the Ulvenwald enables this deck to tutor up whatever tools it needs to end the game.
With all this talk of Delver, it might seem strange to see zero. I'm not convinced the card is an auto include in these style decks when compared to tempo decks in Legacy. Delver is much more difficult to reliably flip without Ponder and Brainstorm, and Modern is much better prepared to combat the card. Tarmogoyf and Hooting Mandrills always feel like the better threats when I play RUG Delver, while they do come down a turn or two later, they dodge Modern's best kill spell and above all play defense against aggro decks. Instead of calling Delver the worst threat in my deck, I find it best to either not play the card or just play RUG Delver instead.
On the topic of threats, I'll acknowledge that Hooting Mandrills isn't the best of friends with Tarmogoyf, Snapcaster Mage, and Traverse the Ulvenwald, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be included. Without it, this deck would lack enough early pressure and would not be able to play one mana Negates. Thought Scour, ten fetchlands, and the deck's modal nature allow the card to work. Early game Traverses should be getting basics anyway, and it's easy enough to leave critical cards in the graveyard for Goyf and Snapcaster.
So is it worth it? This deck started out as trying to find the best shell to make Traverse the Ulvenwald work, the card allows for a subtle, but powerful dynamic to what ordinarily might be seen as “another one of those jank RUG decks.”
“Search Your Library” also known as “The Third Most Broken Thing You Can Do in Magic”
Number one and number two? Well, that's sort of a wash between drawing a gazillion cards and cheating your mana. This isn't Vintage though, we're not allowed to do a whole lot of truly busted stuff when cards like Treasure Cruise, Eye of Ugin, Summer Bloom, or Seething Song are banned. You're stuck with either casting an army of robots or playing a worse version of Burn if you want a peek at what it's like to play a deck that's worth more than your car.
Traverse the Ulvenwald abuses number three on my list of most busted things in Magic: tutoring. As it turns out, cards that let you search your library tend to be some of the most powerful cards in any format. Fetchlands often feel like enter-the-battlefield untapped tri-lands, and Birthing Pod's little brother Chord of Calling is a pillar of two popular decks in Modern for a good reason. Tutors allow you to play more virtual copies of your best cards and consistently see your silver bullets.
- Are you playing against UW Gifts and really don't want to get two-for-one'd by Supreme Verdict? Clique's got you covered.
- Is your opponent trying to Dredge or cheat a Borborygmos Enraged in play? Search up a Scooze.
- Are you up against someone playing fair or trying to burn you out? One Huntmaster pulls a lot of weight when you can reliably find it, this is why Tempo Traverse can have a midrange backup plan in game one.
- Sometimes, great sideboard cards are worth playing in the maindeck. Spellskite can completely shut out decks like GW “Build Your Own Emrakul” / Bogles or Infect, and I find it's valuable against Affinity where it blocks Etched Champion and turns off Modular. Outside of that, it's a fine blocker that will eat removal aimed at your real threats.
The sideboard also has some nice toolbox-y Traverse targets.
While it means we can't play double green cards like Kitchen Finks or Eternal Witness, Blood Moon effects just end the game on the spot against an unprepared opponent. With ten fetchlands and four Traverse the Ulvenwalds to get basics, Magus of the Moon is more of a one sided effect that hoses decks like Scapeshift, Abzan Company, and Bant Eldrazi. Being a three color deck actually just ends up making Blood Moon better, opponents never play around it because they assume you aren't greedy. Joke's on them.
Izzet Staticaster is an absolute nightmare for Affinity and Infect, but it's also worth bringing in against Abzan Company to gun down dorks, and any deck with Lingering Souls.
Reclamation Sage has targets against most decks. I like it against White decks that don't care about their graveyard in case of Rest in Peace, Infect for Spellskite and Wild Defiance, maybe Abzan Company will try to Choke you, the list goes on. You can aggressively bring it in unlike Natural State, at worst Reclamation Sage is always a 2/1.
Don't forget Traverse can also be a Sylvan Scrying. Ghost Quarter helps up your land count against decks where you can't stumble, and it's a great answer to anything from Tron lands to Raging Ravines.
The best part about Traverse Tempo is the flexibility. This deck definitely has a rival Tarmogoyf problem, but it doesn't have to. Jund isn't hugely popular for me locally, but if you expect lots of opponents who enjoy saying “I'm going to throw money at you until you die,” consider a red Murder or a creature Mind Control. Maybe the answer is something more radical like splashing Black instead of Red for tutorable kill spells and neat combos like Glissa, the Traitor, Executioner's Capsule? Who knows, this deck is highly flexible and as a result you can tune it to beat about anything.
If you've dug a little deeper into Gatherer than I have, try fitting in some neat Traverse targets I missed, or even your favorite pet cards. Maybe you're a fan of combos? You could always try jamming in Kiki-Jiki and friends, or something fun like Wandering Fumarole and Ceaseless Searblades. The sky's the limit.
We all like spiking events with established decks we know will do well, but I know I get tired of playing the same deck that's been honed down to only a few flex slots over the years. I encourage you to try out decks like Tempo Traverse that transcends the typical “this seems good/bad” banter in favor of “wow, this looks fun to play!” Thanks for reading.